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The Role of Carbohydrates in Football

11 Dec 2020   ·   

Carbohydrates are one of the fundamental nutrients for all living organisms, together with proteins and fats. They are also known as carbs or glucides, and most of them are of vegetable origin, although they can also be of animal origins, such as lactose and glycogen.

Their main function is providing energy, being part of different structures (for example, cell membranes) and also taking part in metabolic functions, as they store proteins: when they are provided in sufficient quantity, they prevent proteins from being oxidised to produce energy.  Additionally, in a way, they regulate the metabolism of fats and proteins since the normal oxidation of these nutrients is not possible in the absence of glucides.

The role of carbohydrates in football has been reformulated in recent years. The traditional view was very general and uniform, carbohydrates were regulated per kilogram of body weight per day. Thus, to run a marathon, 5.7 or even 10 grams per day per kilo of weight were recommended. And football players, on match days, were advised around 5 to 7 grams per day per kilo.

In this way, in traditional sports nutrition manuals, it was established that all players had to follow the same nutritional indications, with the aforementioned daily diet that included between 5 to 7 grams per kilo, regardless of the moment within the season.

Flexibility in the intake

It has now been demonstrated that there can be flexibility in carbohydrate intake. It is a concept called adaptation, with an individual variability that allows making “tailoring” for each athlete. Thus, in certain periods of the season, there are footballers who choose the strategy of eating very healthy, with more nuts, avocado, or tuna, which are foods with fewer carbohydrates. The goal is to make an adaptation so that, at times of great exertion when carbohydrates are required, they are introduced back into the diet.

These diet periodisation strategies, not always eating the same, allow athletes to eat the necessary carbohydrates on the day of a key match or a day of greater intensity in the training session, while the rest of the week, they can choose a diet with other types of food.

Importance of chrononutrition

Another concept that has been prevailing in recent years is chrononutrition. That is to say, respecting the natural rhythm of the body and eating food when the body is more prepared to assimilate it. Our own body, whether we exercise or not, has internal “clocks” guided by hormones such as cortisol, melatonin, or daylight.

If we did not exercise, it would be more logical to eat a heavier meal, with more carbohydrates, in the hours of greatest activity (from 12 until 7 in the afternoon, approximately). If exercise is also performed in that time slot, there is a double reason to eat with more energy, as it is the moment in which we have the highest cortisol levels and the body demands more energy. On the other hand, both early and late in the day, more anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and easily digestible foods such as vegetables and fish should be consumed, instead of salads and meat.

Another fundamental aspect of chrononutrition is to avoid going to bed very late right after having dinner, although sometimes it is difficult. For example, if a player has to train late or plays a game at nine o’clock at night, he should have dinner with a recovery meal that helps him regain his energy, waiting a reasonable time before going to bed.

Most common carbohydrates

The most common carbohydrate that football players eat is pasta, although it can vary from time to time (especially due to digestive issues) and they change to rice, potatoes, or quinoa. Legumes also contain carbohydrates but have more fiber, consequently, their consumption on match days is not recommended, due to their digestibility.

Another option is to eat yogurt with fruit or prepare fruit smoothies, fruit jellies and purées of mixed potato, pumpkin, and peas, which can enrich the daily menu with carbohydrates.

In general, when consuming carbohydrates, a digestion period before exercise of 2 to 3 hours should be respected. And after exercising, the athlete must wait an hour to eat them.

The new gels, bars, and sports drinks are a very fast carbohydrate version, therefore, they are not recommended when the athlete is at home or resting. But they are useful in moments of maximum activity as they produce a very accelerated rise in blood sugar. Since they are fast-absorbing carbohydrates, they reach the muscle almost immediately and complete the athlete’s energy needs.

It should be noted that some of these new products are not well tolerated by all athletes due to their high sugar content. For this reason, and to avoid digestive problems, it is essential to personalise the gel or sports drink they take.

Javier Granda


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